Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema
The Arkansas Razorbacks didn't have an identity last season, and the absence of former head coach Bobby Petrino was to blame.
From 2008-11, Arkansas was Petrino and Petrino was Arkansas. Minor shortcomings from a talent standpoint were negated by Petrino's play-calling ability. When that suddenly disappeared in 2012, the Razorbacks simply didn't have an answer.
Now they do, in the form of former Wisconsin head coach and new head hog Bret Bielema.
So, how different will it be for the 2013 Razorbacks? It's going to be more of a smashmouth style this season under Bielema and first-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, and it all starts up front.
“Power downhill football wasn’t really part of what their [the OL] past was,” Bielema told the Arkansas News Bureau. “Just to learn how to do that is a process. You can’t tap a kid on the head and tell him he’s tough and train him in three weeks. It’s a conditioning thing that we’ll enforce.”
That means big things for running back Jonathan Williams and incoming freshman Alex Collins, who will get plenty of opportunities in this offense.
Bielema produced seven 1,000-yard rushers during his time at Wisconsin from 2006-12. While the names changed from year to year, the hallmark of all of those teams was a punishing offensive line that controlled the line of scrimmage.
Will that happen overnight? Probably not. That's a complete 180 from what Arkansas was doing under the previous regimes. But it's a transformation that will be welcomed with open arms from Hog Nation.
In the meantime, expect Bielema and Chaney to get the most out of the wide receivers. Last season, as the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Volunteers, Chaney led his team to the SEC's second-best offense (475.9 YPG) thanks to a veteran quarterback in Tyler Bray, two stud wide receivers in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and a stout offensive line.
Arkansas doesn't have the stout offensive line or an established quarterback, but wide receivers are plentiful in Fayetteville.
While Cobi Hamilton grabbed all the headlines (and most of the passes) last season, Mekale McKay quietly put together a strong freshman campaign, catching 21 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns. The 6'6" 195-pounder is tall and fast, similar to Hunter.
Does that mean he's destined to follow in Hunter's footsteps and become a superstar under Chaney? That's a lot to ask. But don't dismiss the possibility entirely.
Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton are two seniors who have played well when they've seen the field over the years, and now they'll be asked to step up and be leaders.
While getting back to a smashmouth style is job No. 1, Chaney likes to spread the ball around to a variety of wide receivers. Arkansas has the skill players to be able to do that right away.
It's pretty simple for the Hogs: establish the run, draw the safeties up and then hit them over the top.
Defensively, Bielema brought defensive coordinator Chris Ash with him from Madison, whose resume is a perfect fit for what ails the Razorbacks.
Arkansas finished last in the SEC last season in pass defense, giving up 285.8 YPG. But under Ash's leadership, the Badgers were able to finish third in the Big Ten in total defense in each of his two seasons as defensive coordinator, and they finished second in the Big Ten in pass defense in 2011 (163.6 YPG).
A talented, yet underachieving secondary awaits him.
Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines will likely start at corner, but junior college transfer Carroll Washington could make a push. Eric Bennett is healthy and Rohan Gaines has the talent; but the entire Razorback secondary needs to tackle better.
How many wins will Arkansas have in 2013?
The one certainty for the Hogs is that they'll be able to generate a pass rush.
Chris Smith finished fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks last season, with Trey Flowers adding six of his own. A good pass rush starts up front, and expect the Hogs to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback in 2013.
This will be a team that Arkansas fans will be proud of. It's going to be a rebuilding year, which is expected when a coaching change is made. But the Razorbacks will show signs that they're on their way back to becoming a contender in the SEC West.
Instead of running with an old identity without the leader (Bobby Petrino), the Hogs are establishing a new one—an old-school, smashmouth style that will pay dividends in due time.